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Federal Backlog May Delay College-Aid Decisions

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Washington

High school seniors hoping to make college decisions based on financial-aid offers may be hampered by a large backlog of unprocessed aid applications at the Department of Education.

The backlog could prevent colleges from making timely aid offers to students, and could impair students' ability to give colleges their decisions by the traditional May 1 deadline.

Kevin D. Keeley, the executive director of the Alexandria, Va.-based National Association for College Admission Counseling, said last week that he had great confidence in the department's efforts to clear the backlog.

"But the implications are disastrous, if a hurried solution can't be found," he said.

All prospective college students seeking federally funded grants or loans file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, with the Education Department. Contractors then process the applications and provide reports to students and their chosen colleges about aid eligibility.

Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley alerted college presidents and administrators to the delay in a letter dated March 6. He said the department had set a March 31 target date for processing all applications received before March 1, and returning to the normal processing cycle thereafter.

Elizabeth Hicks, the deputy assistant secretary for student financial-assistance programs, explained at a news conference that processing of 900,000 aid applications, or about 43 percent of the total received, had been delayed by more than two weeks.

Ms. Hicks blamed recent government shutdowns for the delay. The Education Department was essentially closed for about three weeks in December and January, first by a budget impasse that left the agency without operating funds and then by a snowstorm. (See Education Week, Jan. 17, 1996.)

Assessing Blame

In particular, Ms. Hicks said, the shutdown further complicated technical difficulties that occur each year when the student-aid computer processing system is updated. Those problems are usually addressed in January, Ms. Hicks said, but this year the federal government was shut down for the first week of that month.

But Congressional Republicans say the delay was caused by mismanagement, particularly the department's failure to get the aid forms to the printer on time. In a statement, members of the House Economic and Educational Opportunities Committee said workers who process aid forms should have been unaffected by the shutdown because their positions are funded by permanent appropriations.

The panel distributed copies of a Dec. 8 letter from an independent federal advisory panel on student aid expressing concern about the printing delay and the department's distribution plans.

"This massive backlog is evidence that Congress and the American taxpayers need to carefully consider whether the Department of Education is capable of managing the distribution and collection of the billions in federal student financial aid," the committee's statement said.

Republicans are resisting the administration's bid to expand the direct-loan program, which supporters say will save money by cutting out private lenders' profits.

Ms. Hicks said last week that the department was sending about 26,000 computer disks to high schools to encourage the use of a speedier electronic version of the form. In addition, the department has beefed up the staffing and hours for a FAFSA hot line.

Speeding the Process

"People need to be assured that the process is in order," Ms. Hicks said. "Given the circumstances with the furlough, we're doing as much as anyone could do."

Mr. Keeley said his main concern is that in poorer areas where students are in greatest need of financial aid, access to computers tends to be limited. The counselors' group is urging guidance counselors to ask local colleges for access to computers for electronic filing.

Ken McInerney, the assistant director of the Washington-based National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, said that colleges and state officials could help alleviate the crunch.

"We're hoping that institutions and states are able to relax deadlines where they can, so that this really doesn't have as negative an effect on students as it could," he said.

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